HELENA - A Great Falls man who has pleaded guilty to trespassing to collect elk antlers in three Montana counties and poaching a cow elk in another county pleaded not guilty Friday to illegally killing two trophy bull elk in the Elkhorn Mountains.
Casey T. McGee, 31, was arraigned in Broadwater County District Court on charges of hunting bull elk without a permit, a misdemeanor, and unlawful possession of a game animal, a felony, related to a bull elk allegedly killed in the Elkhorns in 2014. He faces the same charges for another bull elk allegedly killed in the Elkhorns in 2012.
McGee pleaded not guilty to all charges.
In the past several months, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks investigation led to McGee and two other men pleading guilty to trespassing to collect elk antlers.
On June 1, McGee and Brandon J. Caldwell, also of Great Falls, entered guilty pleas in Teton County for criminal trespass to property administered by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The pair admitted in their plea to entering the Blackleaf Wildlife Management Area northwest of Choteau before the May 15 opening date.
FWP keeps the Blackleaf -- and other wildlife management areas -- off-limits to allow elk and deer security for winter range. It is also an area where the animals drop shed antlers coveted by collectors, and FWP monitors the Blackleaf and other management areas for those entering early, according to Game Warden Regional Investigator Bryan Golie.
FWP received information of trespassing, and an investigation led to McGee and Caldwell as suspects, he said. He declined to elaborate on details.
According to the Broadwater County charging documents, on April 27 Golie applied for and obtained a search warrant for the cellphone tower records of McGee and Caldwell based on the probable cause that they had trespassed onto the Blackleaf.
Both McGee and Caldwell had their hunting, fishing and trapping privileges revoked for one year, paid an $85 court surcharge and $500 in fines with $250 suspended, according to Teton County Justice Court.
McGee and Brian G. Brunelle, of Cascade, also pleaded guilty in Teton County to trespassing on a private ranch to collect elk antlers.
According to the Broadwater County documents, on May 4 Golie received a warrant to search McGee’s residence. McGee agreed at that time to give a taped interview, and “admitted to various nonrelevant violations.”
During the interview, McGee also admitted to taking photos and video with his cellphone,and to using a GPS and GoPro Camera, the documents say. Golie then obtained a warrant for those items, and on May 8 McGee was again interviewed.
“McGee admitted that he trespassed on private lands in Montana and memorialized those events by taking photographs using his cellphone,” the documents say.
McGee agreed to locate the illegally collected antlers and return them.
On May 11, McGee and Golie met in Great Falls to inventory the illegally collected antlers, and he was again interviewed. It was during that interview that McGee admitted to shooting a cow elk in Choteau County and a trophy bull elk in Broadwater County, both in 2014, in violation of state law, according to the Broadwater County documents.
The bull elk was allegedly killed without a valid permit, and the cow was his second of the 2014 season, leading to a charge of over-limit of elk in Choteau County.
The Elkhorns' Hunting District 380 has long held some of the longest odds in the state of drawing a special permit to hunt bull elk. In 2014, 9,338 hunters applied for just 120 permits for a drawing percentage of 1.29 percent.
McGee recently pleaded guilty to the over-limit charge, Golie said, however details of that plea including any potential fines or loss of privileges were not obtained by the time of this story.
“When questioned about other bull elk located in the living room of his residence, he stated (to Golie) that they are not all illegal,” the Broadwater County documents say. “He agreed to turn over the 2014 bull elk but would not discuss the legalities of any of the other bull elk racks at his residence at this time stating, ‘I just want this to end.’”
Resulting from the investigation, in June McGee and Brunelle pleaded guilty and paid $100 in fines for trespass to private property in Cascade County. They also pleaded guilty to criminal trespass on private property in Gallatin County, paying fines of $185.
All were related to collecting elk antlers, Golie said.
FWP has seen an increase in serious antler hunters, especially with recent high prices, he said. When people trespass to look for antlers, it makes it even harder for FWP to build a relationship with private landowners to gain legal public access, he added.
Golie called McGee June 29 and informed him that the 2012 elk allegedly killed in the Elkhorns was also likely illegal. On July 8, McGee allegedly admitted to Golie in Great Falls that the 2012 bull elk was killed in the Elkhorns without a permit, according to the charging documents.
“After answering several questions, Casey requested that Golie turn off the tape and he continued talking about getting his life in order and dealing with the ramifications of the case,” the documents say.
McGee returned the bull allegedly killed in the Elkhorns in 2012, and he was issued four citations, two for hunting without a valid permit and two for illegal possession.
Hunting without a valid permit carries a fine between $50 and $1,000, up to six months in the county jail or both. Unlawful possession of a game animal carries a fine of up to $50,000, imprisonment up to five years or both. If convicted, a person loses his or her hunting fish and trapping privileges for at least three years and up to life.
Both bulls met trophy standards set by the state, Golie said. That could mean restitution of up to $8,000 each, per Montana law.